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Source: Stephen Codrington
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OUTLOOK FOR AUSTRALIA
ago, there was one operating lithium mine in Australia: Greenbushes (south of
are six, all in Western Australia.
this expansion lies expected strong growth in sales of electric vehicles, which
use lithium-ion batteries (see footnote).
Annual global sales, which were a
little over 1 million in 2017, are commonly forecast to reach 10 million by
This is driving continuing strong
expansion of Western Australia’s lithium sector, both in mining and the refining of lithium into higher-grade products.
For example, Talison Lithium announced last month a further expansion of
its Greenbushes lithium mine, the world’s largest.
In addition, the company’s owners – Tianqi Lithium of China and
Albemarle of the US – are each developing their own refinery in Western
Australia, to be in production in 2019 (Tianqi Lithium) and 2021 (Albemarle)
Others are considering refinery developments, including some other
lithium miners (e.g. Mineral Resources) in Australia and the major Chilean
company, SQM (working with Australian company, Kidman Resources).
A Chinese electric car. China accounted for over 45% of global sales in 2017. Notwithstanding expected strong sales growth in Europe and North America, China’s market domination is expected to continue.
Will lithium production keep up with forecast demand? Opinions vary.
Lithium mining companies typically share the view of Australia company,
Orocobre (which is active in Argentina), that “demand growth is going to
outstrip projected new supply” for some time.
However, in separate reports issue in
March this year, US investment bank Morgan Stanley and consultancy firm Wood
Mackenzie forecast that supply will catch up as from next year.
In a report of June 2018, the consultancy company, McKinsey, says (more
cautiously) that “given the increase in lithium supply over the next several
years, we see a balanced market for lithium by 2025”.
Whatever the outcome for supply, Australia is well-placed to take
advantage of the forecast boom in lithium demand.
In 2017, it produced 43% of the world’s mined lithium, ahead of Chile (33%),
Argentina (13%) and China (7%).
As a lithium miner, it is clearly competitive; existing mines have room
for expansion; and new mines are likely to be developed.
What about refining, which is currently dominated by China?
Of refined products, both lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide can be
used in batteries, with lithium hydroxide gaining in support by battery makers.
In this context, it is relevant that Australia depends on the mining of
hard rock, while South America depends mainly on the extraction of lithium from
brines (China depends on both).
As explained by McKinsey, “while the cost of producing lithium carbonate
from hard rock is far more expensive than from brines, the cost of producing
lithium hydroxide from hard rock can be very competitive”.
With planned refineries in Australia designed to produce lithium
hydroxide, the outlook for this sector is also promising.
Footnote: These batteries are so-called because lithium ions form the electrolyte,
the section of the battery carrying the charge between the anode and the
cathode. (An ion is an atom or molecule with a net electric charge due to the
loss or gain of one or more electrons.)